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“There are several Puerto / Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm,” wrote Frank O’Hara in “A Step Away from Them.” It was 1956, the day after Jackson Pollock’s funeral. Like the sweaty, shirtless laborers, the “Negro…with a / toothpick,” and the “blonde chorus girl” mentioned earlier on in the poem, these Puerto Ricans are — I was almost going to say decorative, in the sense that they are part of the décor of the city, visually appreciated but not interacted with, but that description probably wouldn’t be quite fair to O’Hara. Let’s just say rather that they are the unseeing witnesses of his mournful meander through the streets of midtown, significant precisely because of their unconcern with the tenor of his own feelings — feelings of which his writing is “in memory” (as another poem would have it), which is to say that the feelings are, like the man who has occasioned them, definitively in the past. O’Hara’s seemingly jaunty tone is what guarantees that his heart is not on his sleeve, but in his pocket, and that heart, as he famously wrote, “is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.” I like to think that if O’Hara had written “A Step Away from Them” several years later, after getting to know Frank Lima, the remarkable young poet of half-Puerto Rican, half-Mexican heritage whom he met in 1962, it might have been a little harder for him to see the Puerto Ricans on the street, however “beautiful and warm,” as mere background. O’Hara became a polestar for the young poet from East Harlem, who was looking for a way forward from an existence mired in gangs, crime, and drugs — the latter he escaped only much later. In 1998 Lima would write of O’Hara, “My dear friend still comes to me / After all these years. / To die once again and to stare / At the holes in my heart.” Garrett Caples points out in his introduction that Lima was uncomfortable being categorized as either a New York School poet or a Latino poet. Partly that comes down to every poet’s desire to be heard as a unique voice, so Lima would probably squirm to hear me say that — after his earliest work in which the harsh experience of the street is refracted through something like the “cubist” technique of Reverdy — he became probably the most thoroughgoing American Surrealist since Philip Lamantia, though rarely without a bit of Reverdyesque heart in some pocket or other as well. Whether his Surrealism is mainly French in origin — Desnos? Eluard? — or has deeper Latin American roots is a question for the scholars, not me. The problem with Surrealism in general is that it is an art of arbitrary combinations produced with the desire that chance become destiny. And as Lima puts it, “Destiny can be as cold as an abandoned car, / Or as rewarding as sleeping late…. / It will never give you a gold star for good behavior.” The dice roll in Lima’s favor more often than one might expect, so that when he writes, “My telephone calls you. / Are you strong enough to listen?” I am compelled to stop and consider, and realize that Lima is among those of whom he says, “When they spoke about life, / their words became waves of suicide. / Proof that life imitates life.” But when I read that thousands of pages remain unpublished, I wonder — how many times can you toss a winner? More than half the book consists of poems not previously published, dating from the 1990s and early 2000s, when Lima was writing furiously though nearly forgotten by the poetry world, still silently helping us “live right into the answers of the heart.”
Frank Lima’s Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems, ed. by Garrett Caples and Julien Poirier (2016), is published by City Lights Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
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